I walked into The Hip-Hop Nutcracker with an open mind, high-school level dance experience, and a noted history of loving the traditional ballet version. That said, expectations for this show were pretty low, simply because I hadn’t heard too much buzz about it. But Michael Fitelson and choreographer Jennifer Weber’s 2019 production of The Hip-Hop Nutcracker—which stopped at the Keller for two nights earlier this week—was way better than I expected.
The show starts with a good 30-minutes of classic hip-hop cuts from DJ Boo, followed by a throw-back intro medley by hip-hop legend Kurtis Blow. After Blow lead us in a New Years Eve-style countdown, the first act began with one of the best parts of the show: electric violinist Jarvis L. Benson.
Since its set in the streets of New York, The Hip-Hop Nutcracker doesn’t have much of a set. There’s a light post strung with a pair of magical red sneakers, a bench, and a bar top (in the Land of Sweets), but the show successfully created the illusion of a moving set thanks to digital video projected behind the dancers. Perhaps the best use of the animated-video backdrop was when Drosselmeyer led Maria-Clara (Ann-Sylvia Clark) and the Nutcracker (Morris Isby) to the Land of Sweets through a subway portal, virtual-reality style.
The costumes were minimal as well: casual street wear, winter sweaters, and—most notably—Maria-Clara’s glittery, high-waisted pants, which glimmered in the stage lights the entire night. Besides the violinist, there’s also no live instrumentation. Still, the production was beyond impressive, and that’s almost entirely thanks to the talented team of dancers, whose breakdancing stunts had the mostly-white audience of Portlanders exclaiming “wow,” “so awesome,” and “oh my god!’ throughout the show. That’s okay because Kurtis Blow told us to make ourselves comfortable, and to scream loudly in excitement if we felt like it.
In certain parts, the show’s hip-hop style seemed so perfectly suited to Tchaikovsky’s music that I became convinced this is actually a better way to tell The Nutcracker. For instance, when Drosselmeyer introduces his toys to the small street party, the toy-like dancers were on point; a perfectly done marionette puppet (Lily Frias) gave a master class in popping and locking. And the heartfelt romantic numbers (Maria-Clara and Nutcracker; Mom and Dad) were sweet as sugarplums, even in the more casual style.
The longer the show went on, the more all this modern choreography started to resemble ballet—the two dozen dancers demonstrated the same level of gracefulness, strength, and animated expressions that typify the Nutcracker and make it a joy to watch. The production photos do not do the production justice. The ensemble earned a standing ovation! Even my boyfriend, who has never seen a Nutcracker performance in his life, had to admit he was more entertained than he expected to be by all this dancing and wordless acting. Assuming it carries on for a sixth year, I would definitely recommend seeing The Hip-Hop Nutcracker in 2020, when the show’s creators and dancers will undoubtedly reach an even higher creative peak.